For many coronavirus victims in CNY’s hospitals, these are the last reassuring voices they hear

Chaplain and Manager of the Spiritual Care department, Rev. Terry Culbertson at Upstate University Hospital

The Rev. Terry Culbertson, chaplain and manager of the spiritual care department at Upstate University Hospital. Scott Schild | [email protected]Scott Schild | sschild@syracuse.

Syracuse, N.Y. — The woman would not recover from the coronavirus. Her family made the crushing decision to take her off the ventilator.

In other times, her death would come in a room full of people. Family would hold her hands. Pray. Make sure “I love you” is the last thing she hears.

Not in these times.

The staff called the hospital chaplain: We need something as she’s taken off the vent.

The Rev. Terry Culbertson went up to the floor at Upstate University Hospital with a few others. They stood outside the door. They could not go in.

She played the guitar and sang “Amazing Grace.” Others joined in.

“I was singing and crying,” Culbertson said.

Death is part of daily life at any hospital. At Upstate Medical University, a regional trauma center, six to eight people die a day. Always, there is someone to hold the hand of the dying.

But the coronavirus has changed death as it has life. In Onondaga County, about 1,000 people have died since March 23 of all causes. Until recently, hospitals have prohibited visitors, except in extreme circumstances, to slow the spread of the virus. Hospital patients have often died without family by their side. So clergy often take their place.

For more than two months at Upstate, clergy have called families who cannot be at bedsides, praying with the relatives over the phone.

The chaplains sing from doorways and iPads.

Last words of love come through the crackle of a nurse’s walkie talkie from people praying on the other side of the glass.

They show the scared, the sick and the dying that God and love are there even though the bedside chairs are empty.

“Not having that is hard, but the connection to God is stronger,” Culbertson said.

She is the head chaplain at Upstate. Usually, she has the help of more than 20 volunteers and patients’ own clergy for bedside visits. Now, the only clergy allowed in the hospital are on the hospital staff. Culbertson’s office has five full-time and two part-time employees.

They must resist their urge to physically comfort someone who is struggling.

“As a chaplain, not to be able to go in and hold their hand is really painful,” Culberston said.

They cannot go into the rooms of Covid-19 patients. The risk is too high, and they don’t want to use the precious protective gear that must be thrown out after one use, she said. It applies to non-Covid-19 patients, too. All the human reflexes to comfort carry the threat of the virus; no hugging, no hand-holding.

So they work to provide comfort in new ways.

A few weeks ago, the coronavirus ripped through a family — a mother, daughter and father. The father was on a ventilator. It looked like he might not make it.

Imam Amir Duric got the call. Duric is the Muslim chaplain at Syracuse University and an assistant chaplain at Upstate.

He asked the daughter: How can we help?

She wanted her father to hear the words of God in her religion, to hear the Koran.

Duric is not one of the clergy allowed into the hospital, so the chaplains came up with a Plan B. They put in an iPad in the father’s room and streamed a reading of the Koran, day and night. The sacred script, they hoped, would make him feel less alone.

“They believed in the power of prayer and God’s presence,” Duric said.

No one knows if he could hear those words when he was sedated and on the ventilator.

But the man recovered. He has been home and able to celebrate Ramadan with his family, Duric said.


Assistant Chaplain Rev. Charles Stewart, PhD, at Upstate University Hospital

The Rev. Charles Stewart, assistant chaplain at Upstate University Hospital. Scott Schild | [email protected]Scott Schild | sschild@syracuse.

In normal times, the relatives of someone who is critically ill would keep a bedside vigil. They would wait for a sign. Hold a hand. And often get a visit from a hospital chaplain.

Not now. The family of the sickest Covid-19 patients on ventilators wait at home for news of improvement or death. Chuck Stewart, an assistant chaplain at Upstate, makes those phone calls.

He opens: I know this is a really terrible time.

Then he listens.

“There’s no visual cues, no opportunity to hold their hand,” Stewart said.

So his voice becomes the hand to hold.

Stewart listens to their concerns. Many of them are worn thin from constantly answering other people’s questions, about whether their mother or husband will survive. And they are exhausted from being alone.

He prays with them, if they want. And he asks: What else can I do?

He offers to have a prayer blanket delivered to the unconscious patient.

Groups make the blankets as they pray and then bless the blankets when they are done. The threads, they hope, carry their prayers.

Families know that their loved one will awake to at least find something soft to hold when their hands are absent.

Stewart, a retired scientist from Welch Allyn who is a deacon at his church, knows the odds. And he feels the families’ heartache.

“After I’ve talked to a wife or a mother and I find out the patient died. It hits you hard,” he said.

When death is imminent, the hospital can sometimes make exceptions to the no-visitors rule to allow last rites to be administered and family to say good-bye.

A few weeks ago, an elderly man was dying from Covid-19. The situation had become dire and it was late at night. The son was driving from Chicago, trying to make it in time to say goodbye. His one wish for his father was that he receive last rites from a Catholic priest.

After a scramble and a backup plan to have a nurse hold the phone while a priest prayed, they found a priest and the man was anointed. A nurse held up the phone so the son could listen.

The man died later. His son made it in time.

Linda Mulrooney ministers to the patients who have Covid-19 but are awake and able to breathe on their own. In normal times, the volunteer assistant chaplain used to walk the unit before she visited the patient. And when she was in the room, she’d observe everything to get a sense of how she might help.

Now she speaks to those patients on the phone from her home.

They are lonely and afraid.

She tells them they are not alone. She is there. God is there, too, she tells them.

“My job is to aid patients in knowing the love of God, even in the midst of pain,” Mulrooney said.

Her instinct is to put her hand on their shoulders. Now that touch is replaced by gentle questions. People tell her about their family, their dog, their bills.

And many tell her it is the worst time of their lives. She listens. She prays with them, if they want.

“Life gives us the greatest gift,” Mulrooney said, “and that is the gift of each other.”

A few weeks ago, there was a patient who was gravely ill with coronavirus. He was anxious and alone.

How can we help? Culbertson asked.

The man was a musician. Could they please sing for him?

Culbertson and some others gathered near his door. They Facetimed him and a nurse gave him an iPad.

He asked for “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

It’s not the usual hospital repertoire, but they would try. For those few minutes, the dings and beeps on the ICU floor gave way to singing:

“I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.”

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